Baggy Paragraphs

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In second NASCAR Nationwide race, Dakoda Armstrong comes home 15th, but not unfettered, at Auto Club Speedway

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Dakoda Armstrong after the Royal Purple 300 at Auto Club Speedway.

Dakoda Armstrong after the Royal Purple 300 at Auto Club Speedway.

On March 23, 2013, making his second-ever start in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Dakoda Armstrong finished 15th in the Royal Purple 300 at Auto Club Speedway.

Q. Fifteenth position—pretty good for your second race.

A. Yeah, I mean, we were better than that, but we were struggling on restarts there. I think we restarted ninth on that last one. Those people that had new tires behind us—you get stuck three-wide between everybody, and it’s really hard to get this thing to handle right. You get spread out. We just lost too much ground there to make up. We were hoping another caution was going to come out so we could come back in and use our last set of tires. Everyone else that took them was going to be sitting ducks. Didn’t work out that way.

Q. Overall was it fun or frustrating?

A. For a while there it was fun. I thought we were getting it, and I thought we were going to have a good finish. I’ve just got to get my restarts down and figure out what it needs on those.

Q. Your boss, Richard Childress, has to be fairly impressed.

A. Well, at least we brought it home in one piece. That’s one good thing.

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March 24, 2013 at 11:33 am

Sam Hornish smokes the field, then the finish line, at Las Vegas

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How to celebrate after winning the Sam’s Town 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway?

A burnout at the finish line by Sam Hornish, who then climbs out to catch the checkered flag.

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March 9, 2013 at 4:25 pm

Bicycle Sam sings me a new tune(up)

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I bought my bicycle, a Diamond Back Ascent EX, in 1990, paying $195 to a medical student who wanted to build his own bike from custom components. According to the owner’s manual, he’d purchased it from Puck & Pedal, in Lansing, Michigan, on June 16, 1989.

During my ownership, I’ve ridden through the Kjalvegur, or Keel Route, between two massive glaciers in the central highlands of Iceland and over the 11,000-foot pass beside Mulhacén peak, the highest mountain in Spain. My bike and I have covered trails in Michigan, Colorado, and Utah. After moving to California in 2011, I’ve pedaled several times up to White Saddle, which is the summit above Monrovia Canyon Park and involves climbing 2000 feet. The downhill return trip is a scream, although on my very first descent I went too hot into a hairpin turn where water flowed across the trail, and when the front tire skidded on leaves, I very nearly dislocated my right shoulder by landing armpit first, with all my weight on the socket. The bike, of course, was unbloodied.

But hairy adventures aren’t the full extent of it. My bike has also taken me eight blocks away, to Ralph’s, and carried back a $70 grocery order.

In 1996, the Diamond Back conquered the tallest mountain in Spain. But it also can do Ralph’s Market.

Over the years I’ve made various upgrades: new pedals, grips, leather saddle, a rack. A few months ago, though, a brake cable popped loose, and the derailleur needed adjustment anyway, so I left the bike covered up. Back in April I’d been into a shop in Claremont, seen a whole bunch of beautiful new Trek cycles, and started wallowing in a pit of disinterest as far as my Diamond Back was concerned. New bikes have lots of appealing features! Mine is like a donkey: few features and little appeal. But I kept reminding myself of a friend’s remark when shown a photo: “It has character!”

Only this week did I get around to seeing Bicycle Sam for a tuneup. He has a little shop a mile and a half away, so on Monday I loaded the bike into the back of my car and drove down there. I figured this would be a slow time of year in a bike shop. Sam, a slender Asian guy, took a quick look and said it was Diamond Back’s best model twenty-two years ago. Amazing how accurate his model-year assessment was–just a year off!

And my guess about business being slow was right. It would be ready later that afternoon, Sam said. I was busy, though, and only got down there today, Wednesday, to pick it up. After he wheeled out the bike, he couldn’t speak highly enough about its sturdiness—“The best components!”—and predicted I’ll still be riding it twenty-two years from now. I guess Sam thinks I’m made of sturdy stuff, too.

It was a pleasure to pay him $55. Not only did he tune up the bike, but also he administered some attitude adjustment. Encouragement and praise have a way of wrenching one’s perspective around 180 degrees. Now I like my bike better than ever.

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November 21, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Naked Boot

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November 26, 2009 at 3:45 pm

Posted in Games, Ha!

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Beer Hat

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These fans were leaving Kentucky Speedway after the Click It or Ticket Buckle-Up Kentucky 150 on July 18. The headgear-eyewear combo got my attention, but what keeps it now is the killer smile.



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August 20, 2009 at 5:27 pm

Posted in Games, Persons

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Spotter’s Gaze

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Spotter's View

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June 26, 2009 at 8:36 pm

Posted in Games, Motors, Persons

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Game of the Century

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Waiting for the game was like waiting for Christmas itself. We woke up on Monday, pinched ourselves, and counted only three more days. On Tuesday, two more days. And then an interminable Wednesday, the clock using a walker to drag itself around. Finally, it arrived: Thanksgiving Day, 1971. The Nebraska Cornhuskers would play the Oklahoma Sooners. “The Game of the Century,” the TV was saying, but even a 16-year-old recoiled from the hype. More than a quarter of the century remained to be played out. But it was a huge game. When the Cornhuskers won in thrilling fashion, yet again retaining their number-one ranking, we experienced euphoria in equal measure to the pre-game anxiety, waking Friday, pinching ourselves, and counting the first day since the great victory, and the second, and third, eager to return Monday to school and talk about Johnny Rodgers’s Etch-a-Sketch punt return and share the feeling that we Nebraskans were finally important.

huskers01It had never occurred to me that someone would write a book about all this, but my friend Budd recently passed along Michael Corcoran’s “The Game of the Century: Nebraska vs. Oklahoma in College Football’s Ultimate Battle,” published by Simon & Schuster in 2004. I could hardly wait to dip into a slick writer’s treatment of the subject. The opening chapters’ pace is excellent as Corcoran summarizes how Bob Devaney bounced around in Michigan high schools and was almost resigned to a mediocre life as a school administrator when Michigan State’s football staff solicited his services. (It isn’t explained the Spartans had won the 1952 national title and the program was a fecund producer of coaches.) Eight years later, Devaney brought his quips, garrulity, and football savvy to Lincoln.

My view of Oklahoma’s coaches had always been predictably dim, but Corcoran changes all that through his humane portrayals of the likable and accomplished Bud Wilkinson, the beleaguered but determined Chuck Fairbanks, and of course Barry Switzer, who was touched by tragedy. Something the three coaches shared in common, incidentally, was an excellent command of English. (Wilkinson had a master’s degree in literature and liked to sit down at the organ.) After a season of listening to Michigan’s Rich Rodriguez mangle his cases, a yearning arises.

The narrative builds momentum. It is clear why the looming game would be so important. But at an early point in the book I found myself beginning to chafe at some of Corcoran’s contrivances. Before 10 pages pass, the work is already creaking under the strain of the clichéd theme which asserts that football naturally flourished in a state inhabited by people of “pioneer stock,” to whom no game could seem too violent because life was so hard. (Through the rickety sides of a corn crib, do I hear the wind soughing?) Having grown up in Omaha and benefited from such advances as Cinerama, a sprayer attachment at the kitchen faucet, and daily radio serenades from Charlie Graham Buick (“That’s why Omaha-town is Buick-town, they’re all driving Buicks, best car around”), well, my pioneer stock had become diluted, I guess, and I really didn’t see it in my parents, either. Admittedly, Corcoran applies his asseveration to the much earlier era that produced song lyrics like these:

Where the girls are the fairest,

The boys are the squarest,

Of any old school that I knew.

But following his line of reasoning too closely would produce shock that, in 1952, for example, it was possible to drive an automobile from Florence, at Omaha’s northern edge, over to Iowa by crossing
a toll bridge over the Missouri River. (Why would anyone have wanted to go to Iowa, especially if paying a toll?) Or that the Nebraska Capitol, completed in 1932, is a modern masterpiece. It’s possible to lean too hard and long on the rickety fence that surrounds the state’s pioneer history. While also leaning a bit too often on sportswriters’ shopworn phrases like “particularly stellar,” Corcoran still manages to generate the anticipation of a thrilling climax to his tale. Here, I was disappointed. Note to journalism students across the land: it’s sometimes possible to do too much interviewing. Corcoran lets his tape recorder take over the story in the last 20 pages. It’s no longer a book but instead an ESPN retrospective, with each principal taking his turn in the spotlight. All the tension fizzles out as oral history intercedes. The author’s abdication is hard to figure out. It’s like giving up command of your cruise liner too early to the harbor pilot and being dashed against the rocks: hardly a salutary end to the journey.

Anyone who faults that metaphor, pointing out my landlubbing origins, is hereby referred to Corcoran’s line about Bob Devaney, who “looked more like a man who would give you an easy smile as he pushed his cap back slightly on his head and said he was sorry but your radiator was shot and that it’d be a day or two before the parts came in to fix it.” Hmmm. Maybe Corcoran knows something I don’t, but even in jalopies like those the Okies drove to California, the repair of radiators’ brass tubes and tanks just required a flushing out and bit of brazing before you were on your way. Which formula could be applied to “The Game of the Century,” as well.

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April 29, 2009 at 4:36 pm

Red Leather Dates

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The Nebraska Cornhuskers used to win the Big Eight football title and get to the Orange Bowl pretty regularly. The Cornhuskers first appeared in the Miami classic in 1955, the year of my birth, losing to fourteenth-rated Duke, 34-7. Returning twice in the 1960s, they had a win over Auburn and a loss to Alabama. Then, in the 28-year period that started in 1971, the road between Nebraska and Florida was traveled 14 times. During that same epoch, the Cornhuskers also played five Fiesta Bowls, three Sugar Bowls, and one Cotton Bowl when it still counted as a biggie. People in my home state got used to planning for an early winter vacation, and Miami was the preferred destination.

QB Scott Frost, leading the Huskers in the 1998 Orange Bowl.

Quarterback Scott Frost led Nebraska in the 1998 Orange Bowl.

Miami was a hell of a long way off to us kids who grew up secure in our provincialism. Omaha seemed like the true center of the United States. I couldn’t figure out why the evening news programs like the NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report,” which aired from 1956 to 1970, concentrated so much on what happened in Washington and New York. So what if Chet Huntley’s anchor desk was in New York and David Brinkley sat his bum down in Washington for each broadcast? Omaha had big companies and important things going on. The Union Pacific railroad was headquartered there, and of course Mutual of Omaha sponsored the weekly “Wild Kingdom” program from 1963 onward, challenging a boy like me to calculate the logistics of getting Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler from our city on the Mighty Mo—the Missouri River—to the Serengeti Plain of Africa on a weekly basis. Did I say there were large undertakings? The reeking Omaha stockyards were vast. It frankly shocked and disappointed me to learn Chicago had stockyards as well. Everything Omaha did, Chicago had to copy or steal. The Chicago Bears had the greatest running back in the National Football League, Gale Sayers, who just happened to have grown up in Omaha. It’s a good thing no one confused me with the information that Marlin Perkins had been director of Chicago’s Lincoln Park zoo.

On top of all this other stuff was Omaha’s importance in the Cold War. Just south of the city, which is situated near the geographic center of the country and therefore at a point far away from Russian missiles, Offutt Air Force Base was home of the Strategic Air Command, where all-out nuclear war could be directed from a bunker. We were used to looking at B-52s rumbling overhead as they approached the base. Later, the 747s of the airborne command center joined the procession. And an allied country occasionally contributed an exotic aircraft like the otherworldly delta-winged British Vulcan bomber. It instilled the belief that Omaha’s real significance far exceeded anything the modest metropolitan population of 400,000 would suggest.

And then the Cornhuskers won their national titles in 1970 and 1971. The four previous champs had been Notre Dame, USC, Ohio State, and Texas. It must be remembered that throughout the 1960s, the slogan on our license plates boasted “The Beef State.” A head count barely produced 1.5 million Nebraskans. Omaha and Lincoln accounted for about one-third of the state’s population. The next largest city was Grand Island, with something like 35,000 people. The teeming Memorial Stadium game-day crowd of fans clad in scarlet and cream more than doubled that total. I remember my surprise upon learning the small cities in the population range of 15,000 to 25,000 like Columbus, North Platte, Hastings, Fremont, and Norfolk (which we pronounced NOR-fork), indeed, these cities had their own daily newspapers. It seemed like a waste of time when they could have just read the World-Herald, along with us Omahans, and found everything they needed to know. Anyhow, nothing besides natural-born killers Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate had ever happened outstate (and their murder spree was a kind of national champion of its own, unlike anything previously, at least outside of gangland). How could a state with just three congressional districts come away with the national football title? We must have been naturally superior.

With its national championships, Nebraska not only joined the ranks of elite programs from huge states, we kicked their asses. Orange Bowl appearances in 1971, 1972, and 1973 resulted in three victories. We squeaked past LSU, 17-12, in that first one. But the next year’s game against Bear Bryant’s houndstooth hat was a 38-6 blowout. And the next year provided the utmost gratification for someone who loathed, detested, and reviled all the claptrap about Notre Dame. Quarterback Tom Clements led the Fighting Irish, but the Cornhuskers’ David Humm only needed to rely on Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers, who jittered and juked for three rushing touchdowns, tossed a 52-yard pass to Frosty Anderson for six more points, and later received a 50-yard TD lob from his lefty QB. The Irish trailed 40-0 after three quarters, when the Cornhuskers’ scrubs went in and surrendered six points. As a footnote to all this, I should include that the vacation and victory destination for 1974 was the Cotton Bowl, where we defeated Texas, 19-3.

As I say, we Nebraskans were becoming aristocrats of football and had begun to take for granted a nice excursion, at least to Dallas or New Orleans if not to semitropical Miami. But then Coach Bob Devaney retired, handing off the Cornhuskers to Tom Osborne, and it was a while before he could beat Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma Sooners in the Big Eight. After a few tries, we did manage to drop the Sooners in 1978, the reward being a league title and, alas, a rematch with them New Year’s Day in Miami. (Oklahoma won by a touchdown.) Our next Orange Bowl, in 1982, was the first of another skein of three appearances, which culminated in the unforgettable loss to the Miami Hurricanes, 31-30, when our two-point conversion attempt failed with 48 seconds remaining and the ’Canes spoiled our undefeated season and claimed the national title.

A couple of years later, in the autumn of 1986, my parents, who were lifelong Nebraskans, startled everybody by announcing they were moving to the Tampa Bay area. They were in their mid-50s, so this wasn’t retirement. My father just wanted a change. He had once mentioned his dream of puttering up and down the Gulf coast of Florida in a boat. They made their plans accordingly.

Julie before going to work at Casa's in 1987.

Julie before going to work at Casa's in 1987.

Not too long before they loaded the truck and headed off, my younger sister, Julie, then 24 years old, called up to say she had decided to go along with them to Florida.

“I wonder what I should do about the two-hundred-and-seventy-five dollar red-leather outfit I put on layaway,” she said.

Hearing this from her made me cringe. Not only did I happen to know, through our mother, that Julie’s credit cards were maxed out, but there was also the delicate consideration of whether such a costume was in exquisitely good taste. The owners of the shop probably had my sister specifically in mind when they acquired such a clamorous item of apparel for their inventory.

“You can take it off layaway, can’t you?” I asked.

“Oh, I definitely plan to buy it.”

“Red leather?”

“Yeah, for the football games.”

“How many Nebraska football games will you go to in Tampa?”

“I could wear it to the Orange Bowl.”

Maybe she should also have picked out a space suit in case NASA invited her along on the shuttle. The Cornhuskers next appeared in the Orange Bowl in 1989. My sister had initially gone to work at Hooters, but as our brother Dan subtly expressed it, “I think she put on a little weight and they had to let her go.” If she kept the red leather outfit and was still able to wriggle into it, good times lay ahead: during a seven-year stretch of the 1990s, the Cornhuskers qualified for the Orange Bowl six times, winning three of those games and bringing two more national championship trophies back to Lincoln. The year they weren’t in Miami, they claimed yet another national title at the Fiesta Bowl, hammering Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators, 62-24, and reinforcing lessons about the essentiality of Nebraska to a new generation of youngsters from Omaha to Benkelman.

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April 20, 2009 at 8:38 pm

Snowmen and Spartans

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Pinhead Mike and Judy await phase two.

Pinhead Mike and Judy await phase two.

School was canceled Monday because of three inches of snow that fell overnight. April’s custom is to leave snow once during its first week. (That’s why I leave winter tires on the car till about now.) Finding anything positive about snow in April is tough, but yesterday I took the dog for an early afternoon walk and found a couple of kids making snowmen. One, Bella, is an exuberant strawberry-blonde charmer. Seeing me, she called out, “Can you believe it’s April?” Implicit in her question was this subtext: “Why, in all my seven years, I just haven’t seen the likes of this!” (Also implicit: the sentiments of her parents, who met as students at Michigan State University.) Then Bella explained that the completed snowman was a snowwoman—Judy, I think—and Mike, her mate, was under construction. A pair of snow children and a dog were scheduled in phase two of the project. Bella spritzed Judy with diluted red dye, while the other girl applied the blue.

Another neighbor, Vince, pushed a plastic shovel across the windshield of his minivan to clear away the sloppy snow while his young daughter explained that school was canceled and she was glad. I asked for a prediction on the championship game between Michigan State and North Carolina. From where we stood, it was just 50 miles to Ford Field, which hosted the Final Four. Vince picked MSU because of the home-court advantage. We exchanged certitudes about the Spartans’ momentum, how they had made the Connecticut Huskies look ordinary in Saturday night’s game, and the meaninglessness of the first match, last December, between MSU and UNC (Tar Heels 98-Spartans 63). Yet the Heels would confidently approach the contest—no doubt about that.

All for the taking.

The family directly across the street flew a large Michigan State flag. (They also had been displaying at the curb a table and three chairs—patio furniture—with a “free” sign.) The oldest of the three daughters is an MSU freshman, and by the comings and goings over there I could feel the excitement increasing. But this is Ann Arbor. I can think of only one or two other MSU flags in our subdivision. There isn’t so much crossover between supporters of Michigan and Michigan State. One friend who’s a Michigan alumnus said he just can’t root for Sparty, except to increase the stakes in bragging rights when the Wolverines beat them next year.

Calder Bros. Farm Dairy truck number 1032 (Dairy … Lincoln Park • Farm … Carleton, MI) has just stopped, and the driver loaded all the furniture but one chair into the cargo compartment and took it away. The MSU flag still flies proud on this day of cold and flurries.

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April 7, 2009 at 4:20 pm

Budd’s New TV

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At some point in his life my friend Budd must have decided that learning anything technical or mastering the fine points of everyday gadgets was incompatible with his asceticism. He is exclusively devoted to the pure and the good. Helping him to pick out a new TV was going to be a challenge, but I was prepared to be patient. He said he needed one because he was unable to get any channels. The set just wouldn’t go on. Last weekend he missed all the opening-round NCAA tourney games.

"My stars! Whyever so?" sayeth Budd.

"My stars! Whyever so?" sayeth Budd.

When I arrived I found that his 13-inch portable was receiving input from the DVD player and he had been able to watch the Nebraska Cornhuskers football games that he loves. (He subscribes to a service that sends an edited version of each game, and he plays these throughout the year.) I quickly ascertained the reason he was unable to receive any channels was that the power to his DIRECTV receiver was switched off. Maybe he had inadvertently bumped into it. But I wanted him to upgrade to a better TV. Where did he want to go shopping?

“Circuit City,” he said.

I had already told him they went out of business just after Christmas. We went to Best Buy. Entering the TV department we saw a fabulous home theater system. Having one look at it, Budd declared that nobody needs such a thing and anyone who could afford it should be taxed. This is what comes of listening to NPR all day long.

We ended up in the aisle with the 19- and 22-inch TVs. One screen showed a lot of semi-naked men seated on the ground and swaying their shoulders as they faced a kind of altar. Budd ventured the rite was in Indonesia. We looked at another TV with a built-in DVD player. The difference is price was only $50. Budd was acting confused, so I suggested we take a walk and discuss the options.

“I don’t understand any of it,” he said. Pulling himself together, he finally decided to go for a 19-inch set with the DVD feature. We brought it home and I hooked it up. Then I tried to help him make sense of the new remote control and the DIRECTV remote, too. Despite having subscribed to this service for several years, it appeared Budd had no idea that channels could be selected by punching the number keys. He must have relied exclusively on the channel up/down toggle. He also seemed surprised to learn a channel guide could be called up with one touch of a button and he could navigate through this on-screen menu and select a channel. I wrote out a few simple guidelines for the basic functions he will be using most. We practiced with the built-in DVD player, looking at a Nebraska-Iowa State game from the Bill Callahan era. Budd noted that a large number of men in the student section wore strange costumes and gestured with their upper bodies and directed their painted faces at a kind of altar.

p1010090Then I asked to have a look at his computer. It recently came to my attention that he has no clue about hyperlinks or that a specific URL can be entered in the browser bar, which leaves him relying exclusively on Google searches to get to websites. And I’d bet $50 that he has no idea how to create folders and organize his inbox. In fact, I’d bet $500.

So I sat down in front of the monitor and found 15 e-mail files open in Microsoft Outlook. He has mentioned more than once that his “techie,” to whom he paid consulting fees, grew angry with him and refused to come out any longer. I managed to keep my patience but came home puzzled by how anyone—Budd isn’t the only example—could will himself to ignorance. “I can’t possibly do this” is a byword with him. Being quick to surrender is a continual foible. On the other hand, if I need to know the scientific name of a plant or isolate a strange religious practice, even one that’s enacted on the gridiron, he’s the guy to call.

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March 25, 2009 at 3:28 pm


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